Cheri on top 

Chris Verene retrospective reflects former Atlantan's perky, up-with-people vibe

Photographer Chris Verene counts film director John Waters and photographer Amy Arbus among his friends. He has a 2000 Whitney Biennial under his belt. He travels the globe with his photo-graphy and playing the skins alongside wife Ani Cordero in her eponymous Latino-alt band Cordero. He's been interviewed by novelist A.M. Homes and been published by the prestigious Twin Palms press.

But Verene's impressive rise from exhibiting photographs in Atlanta coffee shops to lectures in Iceland and reviews in Artforum wouldn't be possible without a career spent documenting a far less glittering world.

Chris Verene: From Galesburg to Atlanta at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is the 34-year-old photographer's mid-career retrospective and symbolically triumphant return to Atlanta, the city where he grew up, studied photography as a graduate student at Georgia State University and found his artistic voice. The retrospective will feature lesser known early documentary work and portraits of local fixtures including the late Manuel Maloof, former DeKalb County commissioner and owner of Manuel's Tavern. Also included will be new work from the series that has made Verene's art world reputation -- his penetrating images from Galesburg, Ill., of family and friends grappling with issues like teen pregnancy, mental illness and dwindling prospects in an economically dying small town.

As he grew older, Verene applied his X-ray vision to Atlanta, documenting another underclass -- the creative subculture of musicians and artists who clustered around pre-gentrified Cabbagetown like riot grrrl stripper and rock star Stella Zine, neo-glamour-puss Holly Hollywood (ne Holly Gnau) and adored local musician Benjamin. Light years later, on the wacky planet of Manhattan, Verene reworked the spirit of that boho luxe with his Self-Esteem Salon, in which he coaxed people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Chloë Sevigny and Richard Avedon to dress up and vamp for his camera. A kind of lowbrow Glamour Shots, the Self-Esteem Salon -- included in the retrospective -- also features Verene's campy drag queen alter ego, Cheri Nevers. Whether boosting the egos of Galesburg teens, Cabbagetown drag queens or the Manolo Blahnik set, perpetually perky Cheri exemplifies a Vereni leitmotif of battling photo-graphy's predatory nastiness with conceptual feel-goodism.

From Galesburg to Atlanta's survey of photo-graphy, sculpture, video and music reflect Verene's elastic range from profound empathy to carnivalesque fun, providing a comprehensive look at the artist's iconoclastic vision.

Creative Loafing: Do you ever get the sense that your family's experiences documented in the Galesburg work are more intense than others?

Chris Verene: I think I'm looking for things that are more universal. When I'm going to nursing homes with family members and stuff, I'm trying to talk about how that's something we all end up facing in one way or another.

Have you seen many changes in the community?

One of the things Galesburg just made news about is every factory in the city has closed or is scheduled to close. And this partly goes back to what I've said all along, which is that my investigation of Galesburg is really an investigation of American culture and of humanity. Sure, it's this one town, but it's all kinds of problems that we see nationwide.

You're this cosmopolitan guy who's traveled, shown work in galleries. How do your friends and relatives in Galesburg treat you as you've had more success?

I think they are so much more impressed that I'm in the local newspaper than I'm in The New York Times. I think they're really happy that I'm able to make a living. It's not as if I became a millionaire. Then I think it would be really weird.

Has anyone ever had a problem with the way they've been depicted?

No, that hasn't happened. And I think it's partly because it's all something they're participating in. I'm very cautious about people's egos and lives and personalities because they're trusting me. And I respect the hell out of that.

I think it would be interesting for local artists to hear whether you see going to New York as important to your career.

New York's great. But it's great when you're up. And I don't want to always be trying to be up. I would like in the future to have a home away from there. [Verene and his wife are considering buying a residence in Georgia]. But I think being there has made it possible for me to achieve a lot of my dreams.

What do you think has been the biggest boon to your success?

The longevity of it: that I continue to have important and helpful people and places that are really into the work.

What do you think it was that made you become a photographer?

When I was 8, I got into this bookshelf that my parents had and it had the Diane Arbus Monograph. I really loved that book. I came to her work in a completely innocent state: not in art school, but as a child. So it just seems to make sense that later in life I would value that, value intimate portraits of people from all walks of life.

Is there something essential that con-nects your very different bodies of work?

I'm always trying to make something good out of what's happening around me. I like per-forming something or involving people in my spirit and trying to be constructive in some way with our time and our ideas and our emotions.

Felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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